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David McWilliams David McWilliams
Album: Lord Offlay
Label: Esoteric
Tracks: 10

David McWilliams was an Irish musician and songwriter who was most active from the late-60s up until the mid-70s; he continued to perform thereafter, but infrequently, and he died back home in northern Ireland in 2002. His best-known song, Days Of Pearly Spencer, was released on the Major Minor label in 1967, but was not aired (effectively, banned) by the BBC, not due to any controversial content within the lyrics but purely it appears due to the singer's connections with pirate radio, so David probably achieved a certain measure of entirely undeserved notoriety. He released on Major Minor three plainly eponymously titled albums of his own songs, earning a certain cult following but little commercial success, before moving onto the Dawn label for album number four, Lord Offaly, which came out in 1972.

I believe this Esoteric release marks the LP's first appearance on CD, which makes it twice valuable. It comes with a rightly informative and authoritative essay by Malcolm Dome, reproduces full song lyrics and sports an appealingly coordinated booklet and package design incorporating the original stylish artwork.

So what of the music within? As befits this lavishness, it's songwriting on a reasonably grand canvas, well-crafted though not pretentiously so or overly grandiose - in fact, probably understated in a kind of early-70s soft-rock manner. Or at least, that may well be one's first impression, and it repays the effort of getting to know. For the best of David's writing satisfies much on replay and bears scrutiny alongside the output of many the era's more feted songwriters. David's writing style befits the man himself: gentle, undemonstrative, quietly accomplished and easy in his craft. He clearly responded to the traditional songs of his homeland (and the sound of the keening whistle is prominent on the disc's lone instrumental, the air Spanish Hope). The narrative song The Gypsy not only has a wonderfully inventive musical setting, but also makes its mark especially due to David's individual kind of response to the tradition of that type of song, in the way he characteristically employs the device of the "twist in the tale" to further engage and delight the listener. Even so, notably on the evidence of the first half of this album, it can be thought difficult to consider David a folk songwriter in the purely traditional sense - but then neither was he in the mould of his contemporaries who discussed weighty political matters or wild emotional peaks and troughs, however desperate or troubled his characters were. This may also be why his ballad Lord Offaly, which (naturally) forms the cornerstone of the album, at first feels less overtly dramatic than it might have been given the often violent nature of the story - indeed, as the sleeve notes observe, David's calming approach only serves to heighten the drama. The brooding musical backdrop, with its masterly, ominous drumming, casts a truly magical spell. It's a shame, then, that the otherwise fulsome booklet doesn't credit the splendid contributions of the backing musicians assembled by David and his producer Dave Hunt.

The even-toned rootsy-country-favoured numbers like Go On Back To Momma and Heart Of The Roll possess an easygoing vibe (shades of The Band maybe?) and an able, flowing production (the inner details of which are very well brought out in this remastering, by the way). Blind Men's Stepping Stones, a kind of polemic, though credited to the 1895 publication A Cabinet Of Irish Literature, appears decidedly Dylanesque (though in a good way!), with some really attractive scoring, while She's A Lady rather recalls early Elton John.

This is thoughtful, pleasing and genially evocative writing with a well-judged backing that matches the sentiment. If there's a criticism to be made, it's that some of the songs may border on the melodically unadventurous, or else fade when they seem to run out of ideas. But if I'm honest, this reissue makes a persuasive case for reappraisal of a songwriting talent that had passed me by almost entirely in the 70s, and I for one would like to see David's Major Minor albums given the Esoteric treatment.

David Kidman